“Tell me a story, stranger.”
The guy on the opposite stool was a typical weekday drunk, full of good humor at the pain of others and caustic remarks at nothing at all. That he was polite to me was an oddity; perhaps he sensed that I was different, that I was less tethered to this place and its vices than those of his usual company.
“A story?” I jangled the ice in my nearly spent glass, a petty trick to distract him as I thought. “Does sir have a particular type of story in mind? A genre? A reminiscence? Something nostalgic? A tale of terror?”
“You love your words.” The drunk oozed from his stool and ambled to a fresh perch a bit closer to me. “Been waiting a long time for someone with pretty words like yours. So tell me a pretty story. C’mon, anything. A young punk like you shouldn’t have a hard time.”
“So long as it floats. You know, paint me a picture with your words.”
It’s intimidating to hear something like that, even from some anonymous failure starting his weekend on a Wednesday. A challenge is a challenge, though, and all the better to answer it with the buzz starting to rise.
“All right, I’ve got a story,” I said. “You know, I’ve never been here. Never been in this joint in my life, and only in the neighborhood for, what…two months. Not even.”
“Sure, you’re the new guy.”
“But I’ll tell you, this place…it’s familiar.” I hopped clear of my seat, the better to pace – a personal habit of mine. “Yeah, I’ve been here, but I haven’t been here.”
“Yeah, it’s a typical joint in a lot of ways, but there are little things…” I paced over to a table in the corner, the drunk’s whiskey-numb eyes following a moment behind. “Like these bookshelves, with the old books in them. Library salvage. Not a lot of watering holes have these. Was a place like this when I was still fresh and stupid, and they had poetry books, just like these. I got drunk one night and read a bunch of them, decided I could be a poet.”
“Me too, pal. Had a girl I wanted to impress.”
“Same reason everyone does it. Same for me – sure as hell wasn’t for the money. Kinda fell in love with it for a little while, but then I moved on and forgot about all that fun I had trying to recite George Burns after a couple shots.”
The drunk coughed out a little grumble. “Story’s boring. That all you got? Poetry?”
“It’s all poetry, but that ain’t everything. See that stuffed deer head on the wall? I know it’s fake. Brought a date to a bar that was just like this and sat right under the head. Boring woman. Passed my time studying that head.” I rested against the wall beneath that illusory hunter’s trophy. “Yeah, I knew a place back in the day exactly like this. Different name, different town, but the same atmosphere, same patrons, I swear it. Damn near knocked the wind out of me when I stepped inside – like this is some sort of nexus. Like some younger version of me might walk through that door with my old drinking buddy, the one who died in that plane crash.”
Then the drunk straightened up, and I swear sobered up for a moment, and a ray of lucidity broke through the vodka haze. “You’re not funny.”
“Not trying to be. You asked for a story, and I gave it to you. It’s not my story, though, not wholly. Heard something about it back in the day, some crazy old man rambling on about how everything’s linked. Maybe he wasn’t so crazy after all.”
I paced back over to my stool and dropped a fistful of bills on the bar. “For the drinks, plus a tip. It was worth it to recapture the memories. Maybe in another fifteen years, I’ll walk through another big wooden door in another town and find myself here again. I’ll give you some more business then.”
“Stranger, hold on.” The drunk walked over, purpose in those strides – was the drunk thing just an act? “Got a little of advice for you. You, I think you had problems. You’re getting more.”
“Roll with it.”
“Roll with it?” I held back a laugh, but I’m sure he saw my lips twitching. “Got it. I’ll see you when I see you.”
I walked out of the joint never expecting to come back – bars just aren’t my thing, not like they used to be when I still had the kind of friends you needed to enjoy them. Even so, I couldn’t help but take a quick scan over the place, masking that rose-glass moment with an adjustment of my coat. And as I opened the door and felt the first bite of the wind, I could just catch the old drunk, walking up to some young guy in the corner, a green kid with a beer and a book.
Through the closing door, I could hear the first think the drunk said: “Kid, have I got a story for you.”